Presented by Google for Games

Catch up on the other articles from Google for Games in this series covering a wide range of topics that help developers take their games to the next level. Find them all here.

Global player count, revenues, and growth records have been shattered over the last 18 months, accelerating the trends that shape how players, both long-term and new, engage with their favorite titles. In particular, 2021 was a turning point for game subscription monetization, according to Google Play’s market and consumer research in 16 countries, across four global regions.

Subscriptions, designed to give players access to a selection of premium games or ongoing content updates in exchange for a fixed monthly fee, have been projected to become the fastest-growing spending category between 2019 and 2024. North Americans are already paying for subscriptions, season passes, and other types of membership to gain access to entertainment — in fact, it’s those players’ second-highest spending category. But games have started to win over other content categories.

“Over the last few years, game subscriptions have become one of the top categories of subscription overall,” says Mrinalini Loew, director of product management at Google Play Commerce. Game subscriptions also rose in popularity during the pandemic as a way for gamers to stretch their budgets by gaining access to a wide variety of titles, or fresh content on a regular basis.

Content subscriptions are the second-most popular game spend category for PC, console, and cloud players in most regions other than APAC, with new players spending almost nearly as much on game subscriptions as games that are free-to-play or one-time purchases. However, equally as notable, players are also spending on mobile game subscriptions, laying out almost 10% of their gaming budget to get a premium, ad-free experience.

“There’s much more value in leveraging the user base you have versus trying to start up a completely new title,” Loew says. “That’s where subscriptions come in, with developers continuing to invest in the games and the users who love those games more, to increase the longevity of a title.”

Loew also points to options like Google Play Pass, where for a small monthly or annual fee, gamers get access to a huge catalog of premium games, with no in-app purchases, or advertisements, as another subscription monetization opportunity.

She emphasizes that it’s important to take a diversified monetization approach, especially on Play and Android, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that subscriptions have a profound impact on user engagement and retention. But it’s not just an easy way to gain a recurring revenue stream — developers need to pivot their understanding of subscription, from a pure monetization strategy to an opportunity to keep users excited about your game and coming back for more.

“I think that’s the best way for the gaming world to look at subscriptions,” she says. “If users have invested in your ecosystem, in your game, what are you doing to make that investment continue to compound over time?”

Best practices for designing subscription models

Unfortunately, it can be a major challenge to retrofit a game for subscriptions, especially mobile games, which have often built their monetization strategies around one-time purchases or in-game currency.

“If we had time machines, the best advice would be to start with a mixed monetization model from the beginning,” Loew says. “As you’re implementing your monetization strategy, think about how the different segments of users will be enjoying your content, whether that’s subscription users, in-game purchasers, or those who watch ads, and how to monetize each one.”

Assuming you haven’t built a time machine yet, the challenge then is to grow your game to fit a subscription, without changing the gameplay entirely. Mixing up your monetization model with subscriptions means needing to consider how to seamlessly add subscriber-only access.

Another challenge developers will face is how to bring paywall content into their games while ensuring those players can interact fairly, and in engaging ways, with all the users in the game regardless of how they’re monetized — but still giving subscribers the feeling they’re getting a premium experience.

“Because subscriptions are relationships with your gamers, you really do owe it to them to provide extra value,” Loew explains. “Treat your subscribers with that extra reverence, but also reward people who have been with you in your game for a long time. Depending on what type of game you’re creating, the question is: Are you providing that extra content that’s above the baseline they expected already?”

That takes thinking through what fresh content means to your game, what you’re doing to create added value on a regular basis, how that fits into the gameplay you’ve created. If it doesn’t fit in easily then there are some hard choices, she says, which is a challenge as well. It might mean evolving gameplay, and evolving how you work with your users in order to create a way to provide fresh content on a regular basis that they’ll be willing to pay for.

The evolution of subscriptions

To support developers adding subscriptions, the Play Store will be slashing service fees in half as of January 1, 2022 — dropping from 30% to 15%, effective from day one.

“We’re excited to see how this can help developers offer fantastic content to our users,” Loew says. “We hope this can help meet that shared goal we have.”

She notes though, that as the game boom continues, monetization is going to keep evolving. Subscriptions are hot right now, but in other parts of the world, developers are starting to dive into strategies like prepaid plans, top-ups, and season passes.

“We want developers to think about how to create games and content that can be monetized in a number of ways, depending on which countries your users are in, and different types of gameplay,” she explains. “Right now, we’re asking developers to think about the transition from one-time purchases to subscriptions, but also be thinking about how to design a game that can be unlocked in a myriad of ways.”

Dig deeper: Read the entire global gaming and consumer research report from Google for Games and Newzoo,Beyond 2021: Where does gaming go next?

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